Pulling the Wool Over Our Eyes

It is impossible to reconcile the contradiction that exists between taking responsibility for the war and avoiding having to answer for it.

Following the first Lebanon War, Menachem Begin announced that he "could no longer" - and resigned. After the Yom Kippur War, Golda Meir recognized she had lost her political standing - and stepped down. Ehud Olmert is not behaving like them: he reiterates that he is supremely responsible for the decision to go to war and for its results, but he is clinging to his post.

Olmert does not mean what he says. When he declares that responsibility for the war is entirely his, he is pulling the wool over our eyes; his statements are meaningless if they are not accompanied by a practical conclusion. After all, it is impossible to reconcile the contradiction that exists between taking responsibility for the war and avoiding having to answer for it. From the public's point of view, whoever brought upon the country the calamity of July-August must pay the piper.

On the face of it, Olmert recognizes this. The person who describes himself as supremely responsible for going to war and for its results, and the person who created three committees to examine how it was conducted admits there were serious failures and that he is the one who must pay the public price for them. After all, there would be no reason to hold the inquiries or declare responsibility if the conduct were proper. Still, Olmert is trying to avoid giving substance to his declarations.

He is avoiding the creation of a public commission of inquiry, which is the most appropriate framework for examining the state authorities under such circumstances, and he also considers himself exempt, at least at this stage, from answering for his performance. He is satisfied with announcing that he is supremely responsible.

This is not the first time Olmert has been unable to distinguish between his public, moral responsibility, and his formal responsibility. Often, in his public life, he has operated along the edge of the immoral, or unethical, and the illegal, and always managed to come out clean in terms of his formal responsibility. This has been the case, to date at least, in his real estate dealings, in the matter of the loan from a bank in North America and in the case of the Likud receipts. Whenever his conduct was brought before the examining authorities, the courts or the state comptroller, he managed to escape the grip of formal justice.

This does not imply that his behavior was appropriate from a public point of view. However, Olmert can claim that everyone does it. He can say he is not aware of any public figure who was caught in his iniquity, and who was not formally found to be guilty, who then rushed to give up his position. In line with the dominant norms of public life in Israel, politicians can sexually harass, take bribes, give out government jobs to friends, support illegal activities of family members - and still continue to be considered legitimate national leaders so long as their unacceptable conduct is not translated into a formal indictment.

Olmert is once more behaving along these lines. He does not consider himself responsible for the distress suffered by the country during the past month - the 154 fatalities, the more than 400 injured, the enormous economic losses, the civilians who had to leave their homes or hide in bomb shelters, the serious blow in the deterrent power of the IDF and to Israel's image - as long as this has not been determined by a formal process. It is fair to assume that when a formal inquiry does occur he will pull out mountains of documents and transcripts to prove he had no part in the failure. Olmert is choosing to ignore the implications of his overall public or ethical obligations to the state and the blow it suffered as a result of his decisions and is satisfied to declare that he is supremely responsible.

Olmert's public responsibility for the second Lebanon war is summarized by flawed decision making and nearsightedness. This is the main test of a leader and when he fails in it, he must give up his chair. Olmert failed in setting the initial goals of the war, in comprehending the implications of the military moves, in the freedom of action he continued to grant the General Staff despite seeing before him how its expectations disintegrated, and in authorizing a ground offensive on the eve of a cease-fire agreement. This is enough for any decent person to conclude that the position of prime minister is simply too much for him.